Rosslyn Noonan: School bullying reveals gap in natural justice

10 comments
Responding fairly to bullying comes down to how we treat each other. Photo / HBT
Responding fairly to bullying comes down to how we treat each other. Photo / HBT

Prime Minister John Key has called for a "national conversation" on how to reduce bullying in our schools. Political leadership is welcome on an issue that is complex and too often dismissed as unimportant and, at any rate, insoluble.

A generation of students who live online as much as in real life have not hesitated to post scratchy recordings of vicious assaults.

Each clip becomes a reminder that something has gone terribly wrong in the lives of both victim and bully.

Many parents of children who have been bullied feel powerless, often begged by their children not to raise it with the school because of their fear that it will just make things worse for them. But bullying, harassment and assaults cannot be ignored - they are human rights abuses.

"Any failure to treat bullying, abuse and violence seriously because it occurs between students, within schools, is a violation of a child's human rights."

The statement comes from the Human Rights Commission's report School Violence, Bullying and Abuse: a human rights analysis. It was published in response to persistent complaints received from parents whose children were the victims of bullies.

The analysis was completed in conjunction with the Office of the Children's Commissioner's inquiry into bullying: School Safety: An inquiry into the safety of students at school.

Everyone, but particularly children, as vulnerable members of society, has a right to personal security. They have the right to be safe and to feel safe. Bullying and harassment, assault and abuse, deny a child that right.

Children have a right to education.

If a child no longer feels safe at school, their education has been compromised as much as that of the bully who faces a stand-down or suspension.

Some of the saddest complaints the Human Rights Commission has received come from the parents of children who have been the victims of serious bullying at school.

Parents have said they felt let down by their schools and the Ministry of Education. In some cases the parents said the school never told them what had been happening, even when the bullying had been going on for some time and the school was aware of it.

They felt excluded from the process, particularly any discussion about how to protect their child's safety when the bully returned to school.

The commission's analysis of school bullying revealed a fundamental gap in natural justice. Schools are required to inform the parents of a student who is suspended or stood down, but there is no equivalent guidance to say the victim's parents should be notified or even heard when a board of trustees is considering how to discipline a student who has been a bully.

Without the right to be heard, the students who have faced harassment, violence and abuse are victimised again, this time by the process.

In March 2009 the commission made a series of recommendations, including asking the Ministry of Education to provide specific guidance to schools on how they should treat the victims of bullying. We offered to help with advice on these guidelines and had an initial meeting with two government agencies.

The guidance must be founded on the principle that a young person's personal safety is the paramount concern and the starting point for the school's response to bullying. It is critical that boards of trustees be informed that the principles of natural justice apply to all those affected by their decisions - and not just to those subject to disciplinary action.

The commission specifically identified the timely opportunity to expressly include the rights of victims and their parents within the Ministry of Education's revised guidelines for principals and boards of trustees on stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions.

None of the commission's suggested revisions were incorporated in that review process which was completed in February 2010.

Once again parents of children who have been bullied are claiming exclusion from the school decision-making.

Even with the most incisive guidelines and policies, responding fairly to bullying comes down to how we treat each other. Along with genuine ownership of the problem there has to be a whole-of-school approach.

The commission is one of the supporters of the Human Rights in Education initiative, adopted successfully by many schools. We do so because the evidence says the surest foundation on which to build a safe and successful school community is clearly expressed and understood rights, responsibilities and respect for everyone.

The Human Rights in Education model has significantly reduced bullying, harassment and truancy in other communities. When students and teachers face less stress and disruption, everyone can get on with learning. It comes as no surprise that when this happens academic results improve.

Bullying is a complex issue with no easy solution and is not limited to schools. But the best place to start is to acknowledge we all share in the responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of every child and young person wherever they are throughout our communities.

Rosslyn Noonan is the Chief Commissioner, Human Rights Commission.

- NZ Herald

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 23 Dec 2014 16:10:59 Processing Time: 273ms